Often times, war in literature is presented as horrible, but it at least allows for some exciting plotting. If you're at war, you're doing something. Not so much in Atonement, though. There aren't any battles here—just a messy retreat and people being shot at. War isn't so much a plot itself as an ugly barrier in the middle of the plot. Briony the novelist, like Briony the nurse, ends up having to clean up after the war, bandaging up the story she wants to tell where war has torn it apart. If war gets in the way of people's plans, then maybe it isn't a story itself but something that ruins other stories.
Questions About Warfare
- How is the second section of the novel different from the first in terms of setting? Point of view? Chapter divisions? Action? What effect do these differences have, and how are they related to the theme of war?
- How is the war similar to prison for Robbie?
- Toward the end of the novel, Briony talks about the way that war is often seen as men's business. Do women have different experiences of war in Atonement? Explain your answer.
Chew on This
Robbie and Cecilia's tragedy is the fault of the war, not of Briony.
The second part of the novel, with Robbie's war experiences, is the least interesting part of the book because it's the one in which hardly anything happens that matters to the main story.